In September, Northwestern was one of the biggest surprises in college football; in October, one of the biggest disappointments. What's the real Northwestern: the team that beat Stanford and drilled Minnesota, or the team that's been blown out by Michigan and Iowa the last two weeks?
Truth is, both are probably the real deal, and the key is Northwestern running back Justin Jackson. In the first five games, Jackson rushed for 636 yards, but the last two weeks, only 55 yards rushing. First five weeks: five Northwestern victories; last two weeks: Northwestern blowout losses.
When defenses are able to shut down Jackson, the Wildcats then must turn to freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, who's more of a game manager than play maker at this point in his career. Thorson has completed just 54% of his passes for 942 yards and five touchdowns with five interceptions. His best performance against Power-Five competition (Stanford, Duke, Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa) is a 14-for-19, 128 yard outing against Minnesota. Thorson's favorite targets are senior wide receiver Christian Jones (18 catches for 188 yards and a touchdown and senior superback (tight end) Dan Vitale (18 catches for 221 yards and two touchdowns). Jackson has caught 15 passes for 82 yards as well.
Northwestern's defense is stout defending the pass, ranking seventh in the nation allowing just 146.7 yards per game. Offenses can run the (dadgummed) ball on the Wildcats, ranking 54th in the nation. The Wildcats defense is led by linebacker Anthony Walker, who has 54 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and two fumble recoveries. Safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Traveon Henry have 43 and 39 tackles respectively.
This certainly looks like a favorable matchup for the Huskers, provided Nebraska builds on the run/pass balance on offense from last week. The Huskers defense matches up very well against the Northwestern offense, as Northwestern struggles when running back Justin Jackson can't run the ball effectively. If Nebraska's seventh ranked rush defense contains Jackson, it'll be tough for Northwestern's 119th ranked passing offense to exploit Nebraska's nation's worst pass defense as much as the other teams have.
And if that happens, the Huskers will be back to .500 on the season with a bit of momentum heading into the last third of the season. Below, you'll find the rest of the preseason preview of the Northwestern Wildcats.
Preseason Preview of the 2015 Northwestern Wildcats
Throughout Nebraska's time in the Big Ten, the "Other NU" (as NW fans prefer to call themselves) has been one of the more frustrating thorns in Nebraska's side. Northwestern came to Lincoln in 2011 and dominated NU, with Kain Colter playing the villain. In 2012, Husker fans traveled to Chicago to create a Red Out on NW's home field, only to watch the Huskers try to fumble away a game that Nebraska otherwise dominated. In 2013, Nebraska overcame a 21-7 NW halftime lead, but a Tommy Armstrong interception late in the fourth quarter led to Northwestern taking a 24-21 lead with 1:20 left in the game. Ameer Abdullah pulled a rabbit out of his hat by converting a fourth and long to set up Ron Kellogg III and Jordan Westerkamp for a place in Husker history.
Last season in Evanston, Nebraska played their best half of the season in the second half as the Huskers won convincingly 38-17 If not for the RK3-to-1 Hail Mary, the visiting team would have won every game in this conference series. And need I remind you, the 2015 game is in Lincoln. But if Northwestern is going to hold form in this series, the NW offense needs to answer a bunch of questions starting at quarterback.
It only seems like Trevor Siemien has been taking snaps at quarterback for the Wildcasts since the last time the Cubs made the playoffs. Last season, without Kain Colter around to provide a Wildcat alternative, Northwestern's offense struggled most of the year. But now, even Siemian is gone and it's not clear who'll start in 2015. Last year when Siemien tore his ACL late in the season, senior Zach Oliver (6'4" 240 lbs.) took the majority of the snaps, completing 30 of 57 passes for 367 yards, two touchdowns but three costly interceptions against Illinois. Sophomore Matt Alviti (6'0" 200 lbs.) played sparingly last season as the third string backup, though he did score a touchdown against Notre Dame. Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson (6'4" 210 lbs.) is widely thought to be the eventual starter at some point; he's a four star dual threat prospect. Oliver can throw, Alviti can run, but Thorson seems to have the potential to do both. The only problem is that none of the three quarterbacks have emerged from the pack. At Big Ten media days, head coach Pat Fitzgerald remarked that he'd consult with the team captains to determine who the starter would be. Is this a case where the coaches are scared of making an unpopular decision, or are the coaches simply unwilling to make the decision? (Or is Fitzgerald's ouiji board busted?) Either way, this likely will be one of the Big Ten's biggest story lines in the preseason, with the added bonus of becoming a September soap opera.
There shouldn't be any drama surrounding the situation at running bak, barring injuy. Sophomore Jusin Jackson (5'11" 185 lbs.) emerged out of the void created by the departure of Venric Mark, rushing for 1,187 yards and ten touchdowns as a true freshman. Jackson was dependable (only fumbled once all season) and got better as the season went on. In the last three games, Jackson rushed for 426 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Junior Warren Long (6'0" 205 yards) rushed 30 times for 123 yards as a backup. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Auston Anderson (5'9" 180 lbs.), who could provide some additional depth.
Last year's top two receivers are gone, but senior Christian Jones (6'3" 225 lbs.), who led NW in receiving in 2013, is back after missing last season with a torn ACL. In 2013, Jones caught 54 passes for 668 yards. Senior "Superback" (aka tight end) Dan Vitale (6'2" 235 lbs.) caught 40 passes for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Cameron Dickersonn(6'3" 210 yards) caught 25 passes for 325 yards and a touchdown last season. A guy to keep an eye on is senior Miles Shuler (5'10" 180 lbs.), who caught 23 passes for 190 yards in an injury shortened season (7 games) after transferring from Rutgers. If Jones returns healthy, the receiving corp might be better this season, but it may not matter due to the question marks at quarterback.
Three starters return on the offensive line, though that doesn't include departing two-time third-team all-Big Ten center Brandon Vitabile. Junior right tackle Eric Olson (6'6" 285 lbs.) beat out a two year senior starter last season; he should be the leader up front. Senior Geoff Mogus (6'5" 305 lbs) moves outside to left tackle from left guard, where he was a two year starter. Senior right guard Matt Frzier (6'4" 295 lbs) started four games as a freshman, but didn't establish himself as a starter until last season. But who will replace Vitabile at center? A battle between sophomore Brad Nort (6'2" 280 lbs.) and junior Ian Park (6'4" 290 lbs.) will play out in preseason practice.
Northwestern's defense kept the Wildcats in several games last season, and with eight starters back, the defense should be a relative strength. I say "relative" because Northwestern still gave up 48 points to Iowa and 47 to Illinois. But improvement is a very real probability in 2015, and it starts up front where Northwestern could be able to choose from five defensive linemen that were starters before. Senior defensive tackle C.J. Robbins (6'5" 295 lbs.) will hopefully team up with junior Greg Kuhar (6'3" 310 lbs.) and senior Sean McEvilly (6'5" 300 lbs.) on the inside. McEvilly missed half of 2013 and all of 2014 with foot injuries, but started 10 games in 2012. Kuhar tore his ACL against Notre Dame, so his health is somewhat in question as well. If all three are available, Northwestern's defensive line could be quite strong. Senior defensive end Dean Lowry (6'6" 280 lbs.) started as a sophomore and should be the leader; he led the line last season with 41 tackles (8.0 for a loss).
At linebacker, Northwestern has to replace all three starters from the start of the 2014 season. But when concussions sidelined middle linebacker Collin Ellis, then-freshman Anthony Walker (6'1" 225 lbs) exploded onto the scene with 51 tackles (9 for a loss). As a freshman thrust into playing earlier than expected, he had his occasional lapses, so another year of seasoning should make him even more consistent. Junior Jaylen Prater (6'0" 235 lbs) and senior Drew Smith (6'1" 220 lbs.) look to be the leading candidates to take over at the outside linebacker spots. Prater has battled injuries in his NW career, while Smith reportedly had an excellent spring practice. While Walker should be better in 2015, the linebackers as a whole should be the main question mark on defense.
A pretty good secondary should become even better, as it returns mostly intact. Only safety Ibraheim Campbell leaves, and he missed four games due to a hamstring injury. He'll be replaced by sophomore Godwin Igwebuike (6'0" 200 lbs.) who filled in most capably for the injured Campbell as a freshman, totalling 51 tackles and three interceptions. As a sophomore, he should put up even bigger numbers. He'll be matched up with senior safety Traveon Henry (6'1" 220 lbs.), who's the leading returning tackler with 73 last season. Henry is solid on run support and hits like a linebacker; his pass coverage could be a liability though. Senior cornerback Nick VanHoose (6'0" 190 lbs) led NW with 10 pass breakups last season, while junior cornerback Matthew Harris (5'11" 180 lbs.) also had three interceptions and seven pass breakups. No slouches with tackling, Harris and VanHoose are the second and third leading returning tacklers from last season with 70 and 59 respectively. Big things are expected from VanHoose this season as he's Northwestern's only first team preseason all-Big Ten honoree by Phil Steele.
From my perspective, if Northwestern can find a steady quarterback that threatens defenses with both the run and the pass, Northwestern stands good chance of getting back to bowl eligibility in 2015. Not sure that makes a difference on the road in Lincoln, though that does fly in the face of history which shows the road team leading on the scoreboard as the clock hits 0:00 at the end of the fourth quarter.